Tomorrow morning, I will be sitting on a plane on my way to visit Harvard University thanks to an International Research Collaboration Award (IRCA) generously given by the University of Nottingham. Needless to say, I can hardly wait.
Richard Rummell, Harvard University Landscape, 1906, watercolour. Image source: wiki commons
As an undergrad, my perception of Harvard was pretty much a reflection of what I had seen in movies: big untouchable school in a faraway land, alumni: Barack Obama; Mark Zuckerberg. But when I came up to Oxford for my Master’s, the legendary American Ivy League was brought a lot closer to home, as I came upon opportunities to meet and learn with people who had been to these prestigious universities, or were otherwise headed there after completing their Oxford degrees. Eventually, you get to know the perceived characteristics and reputations that separate these schools in much the same way as you do with universities here in the UK (Loughborough is sporty, St Andrews is fancy, etc.). Despite this, Harvard always remained at the top of my list of universities to visit for three reasons:
My Master’s supervisor, Geraldine Johnson, studied for her PhD at Harvard so for me it became the place where one of my most looked-up-to academic role models was taught the good stuff that she passed on to me in her excellent seminars and tutorials. There’s something about seeing where your teachers were taught that is extra special.
In a similar vein, much of the scholarship relating to my key areas of study: classical reception, feminist theory and Renaissance Europe, was written by academics at Harvard. Susan Suleiman put together The Female Body in Western Culture, a collection of essays that I should imagine graces the reading list of almost every postgraduate ‘art theory’ module in the western world, out of Harvard in 1986. To my knowledge, Suleiman still resides at her alma mater so if I spot her in the halls, I’ll be sure to let you know. In 1993, Joseph Koerner wrote The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art, a book that I actually remember from as far back as studying art history in secondary school. He still teaches at Harvard and in fact supervises an old friend of mine. I think he might be away during the month that I’m visiting but if not, I’ll do my best to summon the courage to say hello. Paying a visit to the campus where all these great minds reside feels sort of like returning to the motherland for a fledgling art historian such as myself. I’ll finally be able to recall my own experiences of the place the next time I discover that the book I’m reading was written or published at Harvard.
This brings me to my third point. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge fan of the Gilmore Girls, and anyone who is a fan of the Gilmore Girls knows that its protagonist Rory has her heart set on attending Harvard once she graduates from high school. Now, *spoiler alert*, Rory doesn’t end up going to Harvard at all, and instead attends Yale. This turns out more or less fine for Rory (depending on your opinion of the revival episodes…) but her decision not to attend her original choice of college left a distinctly Harvard-shape hole in my psyche - how would I ever know what Harvard was like now that Rory had decided not to go!? As far as I’m aware, I didn’t have any close peers at Oxford who were Harvard grads, so had no brains to pick that would allow me to stitch together an idea of what the experience was like in the way that I could with my friends from Princeton or Columbia, for example (hi, guys!). Harvard remained something of an enigma, so when the invitation to apply for a competitive travel award arrived in my inbox, I knew exactly where I would ask to go.
The chief purpose of the trip is to “establish an international network of contacts within my field” which essentially means that I’m off to make friends with people who are interested in similar areas of study to mine. Renaissance studies are more popular in the US than here in the UK, so I’m hoping to find a new group of people with whom to discuss my research and to potentially discover some emerging trends in the scholarship. I realise that to the non-academically minded, this probably sounds as dull as ditch water, but I’m afraid that I break out in alarmingly sincere goosebumps just thinking about the conversations I’ll be able to have over the coming month.
Another aim of the trip is to take a look at the ways that postgrads are represented on university decision-making bodies at Harvard and to find out whether they have any structures in place that might benefit our systems of representation at Nottingham. This year I’ve acted as postgraduate representative for the Faculty of Arts Research at Notts, which means that I’ve represented the views of arts postgrads on a couple of committees. It’s been an enlightening experience, but I don't feel like I’ve been able to carry the concerns of the students to the various committees in as effective a way as I would have liked, mostly because I’m not sure how to garner responses from a community as large as the one that I represent.
Postgraduate Sounding Board, University of Nottingham, 2016/17. Image Source: Manuel Besares, Facebook
So, I’m hoping that by finding out about how the postgraduates at Harvard effect change within their university, I might find some models which could be implemented by next year’s arts rep on the Postgraduate Sounding Board at Nottingham. I’m running for reelection this autumn, so with a bit of luck I might be able to work on those changes myself.
The final purpose of my visit to Harvard is to meet and speak with some of the professors at the university’s Department of the History of Art and Architecture, and perhaps even to see if they might provide some opinions on my thesis. One in particular, Professor Joseph Connors, has been incredibly generous with his time in helping me to organise the trip and, although no formal arrangements for visits such as mine exist within the Art History department at Harvard, he has agreed to meet me on the day that I arrive (tomorrow!). I’m so excited to have an audience with this man, whose achievements I have looked up to for pretty much my whole academic career (he remains the only person ever to have served as Director of both the American Academy at Rome and the Villa I Tatti, Harvard’s Renaissance Centre in Florence). I’ll stop fangirling now just in case he ever reads this, but as I’m sure you can tell, I’m pretty darn psyched for that meeting.
So those are my main goals for the next month. Whilst I’m out there, I’ll be filming and putting together a video about the trip for the Grad School which I hope that they might be able to use to promote the IRCA to other students in the future, and will be sure to post updates on how its all going both on camera and here on the blog. In the meantime, fingers crossed for an easy flight and pleasant arrival in Boston - wish me luck!
Image Source: The AV Club